Read Inez Tan’s letter to Zócalo listing 10 of her favorite poems for being present and 10 of her favorite poems for dwelling “elsewhere.”
Inez Tan is a fiction writer, poet, and educator. Her debut collection of short stories was This Is Where I Won’t Be Alone. Before taking part in a Zócalo streamed event titled “What Can Poetry Offer Us in Distressing Times,” she called into the virtual green room to chat about creativity, her secret foosball skills, and why she writes for her younger self.
What did you have for breakfast today?
My roommate made some focaccia a couple of days ago, and we are going through it both as quickly and slowly as we can. Quickly because it’s very delicious, but slowly because we're trying to make it last a couple of days.
When are you at your most creative?
Early in the morning. I'm just a little clearer. I often also feel creative right after reading something that I think is amazing: a really good poem; a really good novel. And I think I've been at my most creative when my personal relationships have been going well.
What keeps you awake at night?
Worries about things that need to get done tomorrow, which is pretty sad, because if they need to be done tomorrow, by definition, they're not gonna get done today.
What is your earliest childhood memory?
One of the earliest is being in a jacuzzi with my dad. I know we had a photo of it, so I can never tell if I remember it, or I just looked at the photo long enough. But I think I was maybe like 2 or 3. I can kind of picture the swim trunks my dad had, which were like yellow-y orange. Maybe the reason why I remember it is because you know how the smell of chlorine when you go to a pool or jacuzzi is so strong? I imagine it helps it click in place.
What do you do to decompress?
I’ve been journaling a lot. More so than usual. I try to start the day journaling and check in a couple of times a day, and close out the day with it. It helps me a lot to have a record. Even if I don't always instantly feel decompressed, I'm always glad that I've done it. I like it as something that sort of pays dividends over time. It's nice to have that record.
Do you use a physical journal or do you do it on a laptop?
I’ve kept a physical journal since I was 12, but lately, I've been typing more just because I’ve been journaling so much I can't keep up with it. And I’ve gotten to like that I can journal on my phone; I can pull it up on my computer. If not, you have to carry your journal with you, and you can’t always pull it out. So I've been typing more, but I do miss handwriting.
I value it a lot. It feels like one of the only things you don't show anybody right now. And having that as a space has been very good.
What is the best advice you've ever received?
Write what you want to read next. I often feel like I'm unable to quite do that. But one way I've approached it is I've tried to write what a younger version of myself would like to read. And I hope that as I keep doing it, one day, I'll catch up with myself, and I’ll write the things I want to read next.
Is there a thing that you know you want to read next right now?
I’ve been reading some 19th-century novels. I doubt I would write a 19th-century novel. But there are so many elements that I really love about 19th-century novels.
There’s something about the 1800s that I imagine must also just feel like a nice break from this moment in history.
It feels a little hard to be really absorbed into something that's not the news or something right now. I think it helps. It feels distant, both in time and place.
What is your hidden talent?
I'm very good at foosball. It is a very hidden talent that has few opportunities to come to life. We had a table when I was growing up. I think we got it as a free gift for buying a TV, or something really random. So I just got practice in at an early age, which I think is something that very, very few people have gotten to do.
What was the last thing that inspired you?
Chalice by Robin McKinley. I've talked to many people who read Robin McKinley growing up, but a lot of us missed this book because it came out after we were kids. She has some books that are for younger readers and some for older and some sort of in-between. What really hits is that this feels like it’s for a younger reader, but it very much addresses the concerns of an older reader. It doesn't feel like a childish book.
Especially right now, it really resounds. It's about someone thrust into a job that she doesn't really know how to do, and the fate of the kingdom rests on her trying to muddle through. It’s also got a lot about beekeeping in it. It's a really beautiful piece of worldbuilding.
This Zócalo event is about what poetry can offer us in distressing times. Is there a poetry reading that comes to mind that you would like to share in this moment?
There's a poem I really love by a poet named Jason Bayani. It’s a poem called "Greater Joy.” It's a gorgeous poem. I'll probably end up talking about it on the panel, too. Whenever I'm thinking about teaching a poem or reading a poem, something I’ve been thinking about in the last few years is: Does it save my life a little? His is one that absolutely does. I often end classes on it.